Mobile’s Tiki Culture

The resurgence of tiki culture in the Port City evokes nostalgic memories of an iconic Mobile bar in all its incarnations.

Photo by Elizabeth Gelineau

If you ask Mobilians of a certain age, you will hear wild tales. A resounding, “Thank goodness there weren’t cell phone cameras back in those days!” Tales of belly dancers with giant snakes. Of Singapore slings and free spaghetti on Sundays. Of women wearing tassels where t-shirts should be. Of great live music and perhaps more than a little bit of underage imbibing. Of a welcoming place for all who just want to escape and have a good time. Of a bar in the 1970s: The Tiki. But how did we get here? It’s a winding road through Mobile history and the history of American culture at large. Let’s go back to the beginning. 

Born in 1907, Ernest Raymond Gantt was, by his own design, an enigma. He was known for being a teller of tall tales, an embellisher of the truth. 

He told some people that he grew up in Texas. Others, New Orleans or the then-territory of Jamaica. He bragged of his childhood encounters with sailors who enthralled the youngster with stories of life on the high seas. While we don’t know all the details of young Gantt’s life, historical records indicate that he was born in the landlocked county of Limestone, Texas. By his own account, he was helping his mother run boarding houses in Texas when he was 16. He then got a taste for wanderlust and left home to sail throughout the Caribbean and South Pacific. He likely visited Haiti, Tonga, Hawaii, Polynesia and more. He recounted living among the natives in the South Pacific, but many say that this was another one of his “embellishments.”

But what we do know is that when he landed back in the States — California, to be exact — he had a new name. Gantt was now legally “Don Beach.” Some alleged that the new name was an attempt to distance himself from his Prohibition bootlegging and rum running. Beach, true to his nature, neither confirmed nor denied these accusations, appearing to embrace the rumors and mystery of his past. 

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Beach didn’t just have a new name. He had a new plan. He envisioned opening a restaurant and bar based on his travels. Flaming torches providing an amber glow to dimly lit rooms with thatched ceilings. Guests sitting on rattan furniture with bamboo touches. Masks and tiki poles adding to the fantasy of an idealized “exotic” destination. Over-the-top garnishes on rum cocktails made with freshly squeezed tropical juices. And so, Beach opened the first Don the Beachcomber restaurant in 1933 in Hollywood. In doing so, Beach spawned the tiki craze that took over American culture for decades to come. He created strong rum drinks such as the zombie and Sumatra kula. He handed out leis to guests. He served crab rangoons, egg rolls, chicken fried rice and wonton soup. At the time, these dishes were novel to Americans, and, in his typical style, Beach told guests that they were being served “South Seas Island Food.”  

Tiki bars, tiki restaurants and tiki home décor quickly swept the nation. Mobile was no exception. Trader Vic’s, another legendary tiki bar, opened its doors in Oakland, California in 1937, going on to become an iconic chain with locations around the country. While neither of these franchises made their way to Mobile, the Port City was no stranger to the influence of all things tiki. The end of World War II marked a period of renewed optimism and a desire to escape the hardships of war. This sentiment was echoed in 1951 when the Isle Dauphine Club opened. The scenic top floor operated as a tiki-style bar, where women in cocktail dresses and men in suits mingled and drank mai tais over sweeping Gulf views. A thatched ceiling and bamboo along the walls added to the theme.

Photographer Helen O’Connor perched on the shoulder of a belly dancer.

In the fall of 1955, Evan Tito Hartzes and Norman Firth opened the highly successful Chick-N-Box on Holcombe Avenue. The casual place was known for its call-ahead, curbside service where customers would take a bucket of hot, fresh, fried chicken to the drive-in or for a family picnic. It seemed quite the unlikely location for an upscale tiki bar. However, seeing the need for a cocktail lounge in the area, Chick-N-Box added a tiki-inspired bar, which they dubbed “an exotic, fabulous room” in which patrons could drink cocktails and enjoy “dinner by candlelight.” Unfortunately, during a renovation, the Chick-N-Box caught fire and closed. The building was sold to Jimmy Vallas, who reopened it as The Tiki Supper Club.

Vallas was known for being a hard-working family man of Greek descent. The newly opened Tiki Supper Club was an upscale dining experience with Greek specialties and fresh seafood. Nick Coumalis, a family friend and regular during this era, described it as a place where “men wore suits and women wore nice dresses.” There were cocktails and dancing, all in a classic tiki environment. Pat Yemm remembers “there were banana leaves all around. And bamboo. The drinks were served in tiki mugs, and it was a great place for a date.” The walls were covered in fake leopard skins and spears hung over the booths. All the waitstaff dressed the part. John Harvard, another Mobile native recalls, “I went there a lot when I was in high school. I never got carded because I was a big guy wearing a suit and tie and was walking in with my boss from the shoe store who knew a lot of the people in there. They had bigger bands with brass sections during those years, and most of the customers were dressed very classy. The most memorable part was groups of single women in their 20s and 30s who loved to dance. It was a great time.”

Times, however, were changing. The Tiki Supper Club opened at the tail end of the tiki movement in the United States. Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vics were tight-lipped about their cocktail recipes, and most tiki bars made their drinks with low-quality rum and sugary syrups. Americans’ tastes were moving away from overly sugary drinks towards wine and beer. Airline travel had also become more accessible, and people were more likely to get away to faraway lands on their own rather than dream of escape from behind a barstool. The desire for genuine experiences started to trump escapist fantasies. And so, as customers’ interests changed, Vallas did what any good businessman would do: he adapted. 

A Tiki Supper Club matchbook

He hired dancers with tassels and a variety of performers. “When I first started working there were no dancers, but later, Mr. Jimmy started bringing them in. Most were nice and interesting to talk with. One taught me tassel twirling and fire dancing. I never used that knowledge, but I loved learning,” says Susan Normand in a 2022 post on Facebook’s, “Mobile Nostalgia For Old Folks and Young.” Vallas brought in local bands and Elvis impersonators. Even Jimmy Buffet played a night at the Tiki. “Willie Lowry and his band played there in the early 70s. He would sing ‘Ahab the Arab’ and put on a turban and cape while he performed it,” says Sandra Hinton DeCord. “They had a big Halloween party and my mom dressed up as Fatima of the Seven Veils. Willie pulled her up on stage and sang that song to her. It was hysterical.” Stories of underage drinking (they didn’t check IDs as much back then, the guilty insist) and streaking across the dance floor after a few too many bottles of Schlitz abound. 

Vallas served free hot dogs on Mondays and free spaghetti on Sundays. “I loved going there after being on Dauphin Island all day and stopping to enjoy the music and the buffet. A lot of great friends hung out there,” says Elise Anderson. “There were free spaghetti suppers on the weekend if you bought an alcoholic beverage. All of us surfers would eat and nurse that one beer until they asked us to leave,” laughs Rick Gomez.

By the end of the 70s, the Tiki was sold and became a rock club, sans tiki theme or adornment. The era of tiki was over, and the movement was seen as uncool and out of touch with the younger generation. But The Tiki is remembered fondly by those who went to its different iterations. Regardless of what era of the establishment you were a part of, the sentiment was the same. “It was a great place with good friends and great memories,” says Anderson.

Left to Right Jimmy Vallas poses with the Tiki staff. Rattan chairs line the bar, while totems accentuate the theme. An orchestra performed nightly at the supper club. Photos courtesy the Vallas family.

However, it turns out tiki as a cultural phenomenon wasn’t dead. It was just hibernating. The movement has been revived by a new generation, who appreciate the fun, tropical feel of tiki. With the move towards craft cocktails, bartenders have rediscovered the techniques that Don Beach and his contemporaries used to make their drinks, with fresh fruit and high-quality ingredients. Roy Clark, general manager of The Haberdasher, is one of these enthusiasts. Clark has attended multiple bartender camps where the focus is on creating tiki cocktails that he describes as a “balance of tart, sweet, boozy and delicious.” He even runs a tiki podcast, “Sea Stories from The CoastWatchers Club.” His passion for the culture led Clark to start Tiki Week at The Haberdasher, which has now expanded to an annual tiki-themed week in downtown Mobile. This year, tiki week will run from August 14 through 19. Local bars and restaurants willl serve food and drinks that bring back the original aesthetic and libations from the tiki movement. Revelers are invited to dress in Hawaiian shirts, tropical prints and leis as they barhop Downtown. 

Tiki has traveled a long road in Mobile from its heyday in the 50s and 60s to the fun, outlandish memories at the Tiki Club in the 70s. Now, with modern tiki, a whole new generation is getting swept away into a tropical island fantasy. “I believe that we are in a new golden era of the tiki cocktail,” says Clark. Cheers to that!

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